Academic Freedom

Cary Nelson


Reprinted from Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt, Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education (Routledge, 1999).

Academic freedom is the glue that holds the university together, the principle that protects its educational mission. It is the principle that guarantees faculty members the right to speak and write as they please without interference from the university, the state, or the public. It is the principle that gives both students and faculty in the classroom the right to say whatever they believe is pertinent to the subject at hand. It is the principle that affirms there are no limits to what subjects and issues educational institutions may study, investigate, debate, and discuss. As Louis Menand writes in The Future of Academic Freedom, it "is not simply a kind of bonus enjoyed by workers within the system, a philosophical luxury universities could function just as effectively without. It is the key legitimating concept of the entire enterprise" (5).

From the outset academic freedom was vested simultaneously in individuals and in institutions. It was designed at once to protect the independence of disciplinary inquiry and to protect individuals from the exercise of political and economic power, including the power of those who pay professors' salaries. The first American efforts to define academic freedom at the turn of the century, as in John Dewey's 1902 essay "Academic Freedom," came at a time when academics had no job security. They were hired on yearly contracts and could be fired at will, as indeed they were. Job security, it became clear, was the only way to protect the speech of individual academics. The American Association of University Professors linked job security with tenure when the organization was founded in 1915. At the same time business interests were already arguing against it.

As Hofstadter and Metzger note in their classic study, the first American Academic professional organizations were founded in the 1880s, and it was these organizations and the disciplines they represented that were to lend authority to individual academics' claims of expertise. But academics were to be protected not only for speech directed internally, at the university community and the discipline, but also for speech directed toward the world of politics and public policy, at least when events in that larger world pertained to their expertise. Indeed, the struggles over faculty termination that led to the formation of the AAUP and the definition of academic freedom were most often struggles over faculty members' public statements, either about national policy or university governance, not their scholarship or their classroom speech.

Academic freedom is also, for better or worse, an ideal, not a fact of nature. It must be put into practice for it to have any meaningful effects, and the quality and nature of its observance varies within departments, across institutions, and between countries. The protections it offers differ for different classes of academic workers, with the highest degree of protection enjoyed by tenured faculty. That tenured faculty have the most secure and protected form of intellectual freedom is not inherent in the concept of academic freedom; it is a function of how academic freedom is deployed and given material reality in various social practices.

Even tenured faculty, however, cannot assume their academic freedom will withstand all forms of assault and all historical conditions. All faculty members lose their academic freedom in a dictatorship, as faculty members did in Nazi Germany. The guarantees academic freedom offered were also widely abandoned in the United States during the 1950s, in the long postwar inquisition that culminated in the McCarthy period. As Ellen Schrecker demonstrates in No Ivory Tower, many progressive faculty members lost their jobs during this period and none were able to speak freely without fear of punishment. Academic freedom must thus be relearned and defended continually.

The widespread betrayal of academic freedom in the 1950s——not just in higher education but also in high schools——did not do away with the ideal but rather proved its value. The existence of the concept of academic freedom helped faculty understand what they had lost, what they must guard more carefully in the future. As Joan Scott has written, "it was precisely in its loss that the abstract principle acquired concrete reality" (164).

Although tenure could not guarantee academic freedom in the 1950s, it has served academic freedom well in the decades since then. Its relationship to academic freedom is less philosophical than practical. Tenured faculty have legal protections against arbitrary dismissal; they can thus speak and write freely without fear of the ultimate professional penalty, the loss of employment. They can take intellectual positions as they wish and defend them with conviction. They can embark on unpopular research projects without fear of retribution. When the British parliament defined tenure, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in August, 1988, it called it "the freedom of academic employees to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial opinions without jeopardizing their jobs or privileges." Tenured faculty have the job security that enables them to take issue with how their universities are administered as well. They can also often safely refuse assignments they believe are not in their own best intellectual and professional interests. As tenured faculty exercise these rights without sanction, they establish the conduct appropriate within the institution as a whole and set an example that some less well-protected individuals are able to follow.

Some critics of tenure can be rather snide about its role in guaranteeing academic freedom. They point out that academic freedom really does not exist for untenured teachers——graduate students, part-timers, and adjunct faculty. Their control over course content is more limited, sometimes nonexistent, and their ability to speak freely is constrained by their disposability. This argument has real merit, especially for adjunct and part-time faculty, who can often be fired at an administrator's whim. In urban centers there is frequently a large pool of underemployed teachers waiting to take their jobs. Graduate students are not replaceable quite so quickly, since their applications have to be written and assembled, accompanied by letters of recommendation, then reviewed and processed by faculty committees. That usually only happens once a year. Replacement graduate employees are thus generally available only on a cyclic basis. There is now typically a pool of underemployed graduate students in other departments on campus, but even they may be unavailable once the semester is under way. But part-timers are very much like day-workers. In some locations you really can hire replacements overnight. But any department can survive terminating an individual graduate employee or part-timer; for part-timers there is often no mechanism for appeal.

Under these circumstances academic freedom can be seriously imperiled. Many such vulnerable teachers are intellectually oppressed, especially in institutions that have a mission or intellectual profile that faculty are supposed either to support or at least never contradict. Proprietary schools or religious schools are the most frequent offenders here, but untenured teachers who address controversial issues in the classroom can find themselves at risk in other schools as well. In such cases, non-renewal is an almost invisible way to silence inconvenient speech.

The people who should be the local guarantors of academic freedom are the tenured faculty. Their tenure should protect not only their own free speech rights but also the rights of more vulnerable employees. Individual tenured faculty should be ready to step in and defend graduate employees and part-timers aggressively. On some campuses a recognized union, a local AAUP chapter, or a faculty senate can offer organized support for academic freedom when it cannot be successfully defended at the departmental level. But the first line of defense needs to be vigilant tenured faculty.

Some tenured faculty regularly play this role for graduate students, especially once a graduate student signs on to work directly with a faculty member. Others are willing to act on principle even for students they do not know well. Some tenured faculty will never take a risk for anyone else, but then they do not fully understand the responsibilities of tenure. The situation for part-timers and adjuncts is usually quite different. Tenured faculty may never even meet them and thus have no idea who they are. It is easier not to feel guilty about exploiting part-timers if they remain invisible to you. Then the academic freedom of part-timers can be seriously undermined. They can be dismissed by managers without due cause or kept so frightened they avoid exercising their free speech rights. This suggests that academic freedom cannot be dependably sustained in departments where a whole class of teachers is structurally isolated from tenured faculty.

On the other hand, if academic freedom is grounded in steadfast and committed tenured faculty who are responsible for all staff members, then it is reasonable to expect the line administrative officers——from the department head to the dean to the university chancellor or president——to be staunch defenders of academic freedom as well. If there is no substantial core of tenured faculty with a high degree of job security behind them, administrators may prove far less courageous. The president who oversees a vulnerable faculty of part-timers is often alone in trying to preserve the school's intellectual independence and integrity. Such an administrator may consider the job impossible, especially when outside forces weigh in on an issue. CEO-dominated Boards of Trustees, legislators, parent, and legislators often have little commitment to academic freedom when controversy is involved.

There is little ambiguity about what the key sites of controversy are: sex, politics, public policy, and religion. Imagine an academic institution where all or most of these topics are either out-of-bounds or sharply curtailed. Add to the list the increasingly vexed area of working conditions at the school itself. If the college has major corporate sponsors, donors, or partners, their activities may be off limits to criticism as well. As the areas of enforced silence pile up, it becomes more and more difficult to think of the resulting institution as one where adequate intellectual debate and inquiry can take place. Restrictions that apply to faculty may even be more severe for the student newspaper. Soon we really aren't talking about "higher" education at all; at best we're talking about job training, at worst we're talking about virtual indoctrination.

The restriction of academic freedom in the growing sector of proprietary education presents real problems for academic oversight. Certainly publicizing the matter can help, but such publicity will not automatically reach the proprietary schools' potential clients. More scrupulous oversight by accrediting agencies is another strategy, and it is being urged more regularly.

Equally difficult is the much longer-running issue of academic freedom at religious institutions. When Arthur Lovejoy published his famous definition of academic freedom in 1930 he explicitly argued for the right of a scholar "to express his conclusions, whether through publications or in the instruction of students, without interference from political or ecclesiastical authority" (84). Lovejoy of course had in mind not only his contemporary scene but also the long history of heresy in societies dominated by religious authority. Through much of the 1970s it appeared that this problem was gradually solving itself. It seemed that many religiously affiliated colleges and universities were effectively becoming more secular, or at least more tolerant of intellectual diversity and dissent. Then in the 1980s the trend began to reverse itself, partly in concert with the rise of the New Right as a potent political force in the country at large.

We started seeing increasing restriction of academic freedom at religious schools, especially at schools affiliated with Evangelical or fundamentalist groups. In some cases restrictions were not only widespread but inconsistent or irrational. Expectations of faculty conformity in narrow doctrinal areas widened to include social and political positions. Thus some religious schools made it clear that issues like birth control or abortion rights could not be addressed freely in the classroom, certainly not so freely that faculty could admit pro-choice beliefs. At some schools academic freedom on such matters might vary from department to department, depending on whether secular or religious faculty were in charge and on how closely subject matter impinged on doctrine. A department of sociology might be less restrictive than a department of theology. On the other hand few conservative religious institutions would tolerate a sympathetic course on gay rights or Queer theory; such "illnesses," they are likely to feel, should be treated in the counseling center, not in the classroom. The conservative wing of the Southern Baptists gained control of some institutions and insisted that faculty affirm that the Bible was literally true.

At some religiously affiliated schools the faculty have a high degree of intellectual freedom while the students have virtually none. Often religious preferences intervene in hiring and promotion decisions. Faculty members at Marquette University told me they felt promotion requirements were sometimes relaxed for Catholic faculty members. One highly respected Baptist university in the southwest proudly confirms that all its faculty are Christians; they go on to demand that 50% of them be Baptists. Your department may be told it has fallen below the 50% minimum and will be required to hire Baptists for the next several slots. A group of faculty at that school questioned that practice in a 1997 memo: "Some of us have heard that some departments are being told that any faculty hires that they make this year must be Baptists. If this is true how is it in keeping with the stated policy on hiring new faculty? Also, are we not being dishonest to advertise a position for which only Baptists candidates are viable candidates without making that limitation known to all involved from the very beginning?"

The memo's existence, on the other hand, highlights the conflicted nature of religious institutions. They often have campus cultures where traditions of deference to ecclesiastical authority translate into deference to administrators. Yet at the same time they can be places where arguments based on ethics or morality have more weight. Ethical arguments won't necessarily carry the day, but they may remain on the table and continue to have some impact while an issue runs its course. At many secular campuses, people wait out a moral argument while knowing that power and money trump everything else.

At religious institutions where religious and administrative authority are combined and wield nearly absolute power, unfortunately, such delicate maneuvering may never take place. As the AAUP's Committee A reported, at Brigham Young University, for example, doctrinal impact on academic freedom and tenure is unpredictable and surreal. Here is an excerpt from the AAUP's summary of BYU's handling of a 1996 tenure case:

In the letter of June 5, 1996, notifying Professor Houston of denial of continuing status and promotion, the central charge in the case made against her was that she had `engaged in a pattern of publicly contradicting fundamental Church doctrine and deliberately attacking the Church' . . . From the panel presentation taped at the 1994 Sunstone symposium, at which she spoke informally for about six minutes, they [university administrators] cited offending comments:

In one of my recent meditations——which are prayer for me——I visualized once again, as I have many times in the past, sitting on my Father-in-Heaven's lap and laying my head on his shoulders for comfort, and I saw myself being held in my Heavenly Mother's arms, and holding her hand tightly for strength . . . .

While the Mormon hymn `O My Father' and other texts refer frequently to a Mother in Heaven and parents in heaven, the BYU administration concluded that Professor Houston's comments constituted `public affirmations of the practice of praying to Heavenly Mother that contradict fundamental Church doctrine that we should pray only to Heavenly Father.'[i]

     The uneasiness one may well feel about the status of academic freedom at religiously affiliated institutions has a long history. Indeed it was an issue at the turn of the century when the principles of academic freedom were first being fully formulated here. The AAUP has an exceptions clause for religious institutions in its statement on academic freedom and tenure. The reasons for the existence of the clause, which requires notice at the time of appointment of "limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution," perhaps including specific doctrinal areas where conformity is demanded of the staff, are partly strategic. If religious institutions were simply cast out of the conversation, officially stigmatized as betraying the basic notion of academic freedom, then faculty members at those schools would have no external protection. Yet some AAUP members see the clause merely as an opportunity for religious schools to announce when they are not honoring academic freedom, not as giving them greater latitude in defining it.

As it is, a significant number of religiously affiliated schools still want to be seen as being in the mainstream of American higher education, as being places where independent intellectual work can and does take place. It is also in many ways in our interest to draw them into the mainstream, to show them, as Martin Marty put it recently, that "their pursuits of heretics in their academic folds usually turn out to be self-defeating or counter-productive" (64). So a difficult and delicate balancing act occurs continually, as scholars at secular institutions try in practice to define a line beyond which religiously affiliated schools cannot go. Defining the line in the abstract is quite difficult, so the focus is on evaluating practice and conduct. There was agreement in the AAUP's Committee A on academic freedom and tenure that Brigham Young University had stepped substantially over that line. Their report cites a number of cases where academic freedom was seriously abridged, but there were still more. The publication of the report informs faculty across the country about the school's conduct and sends a message to other schools about what sort of behavior will not be tolerated.

The conservative drift of many religiously affiliated schools has unfortunately not been the only trend threatening academic freedom. A key element of the continuing debate about academic freedom reconstructs another controversy that has continued throughout the century——the question of whether speech outside disciplinary expertise is protected. The issue of course is not whether faculty speech is protected from criticism; it is not. Heated debate is fundamental to the continuing conversation of most academic disciplines. Academics entering the public arena are clearly subject as well to all varieties of public discourse. The issue, therefore, is whether professors can be punished academically for political speech exercised in the public arena.

As Thomas Haskell points out, academic freedom "came into being as a defense of the disciplinary community (or, more exactly, the university conceived as an ensemble of such communities" (54). Joan Scott argues that "academic freedom protects those whose thinking challenges orthodoxy; at the same time the legitimacy of the challenge——the proof that the critic is not a madman or a crank——is secured by membership in a disciplinary community based upon shared commitment to certain methods, standards, and beliefs" (166). Disciplines through their members judge and mediate individual speech all the time, mostly by reviewing manuscripts for journals and presses and deciding whether or not they should be published. The protections for this sort of disciplinary speech are partly, as Richard Rorty notes, a matter of tradition and custom; thus they require continual reassertion and professional monitoring.

From the turn of the century on, however, non-disciplinary faculty speech has been a matter of contention. The case that partly led to the founding of the AAUP, however, the dismissal of economist Edward Ross at Stanford clearly mixes not only intramural and extramural speech but also disciplinary and non-disciplinary speech.[ii] In 1896 Ross endorsed the idea of free silver in a pamphlet and spoke in public on behalf of William Jennings Bryan's presidential candidacy. Leland Stanford, the university's founder, had died and left control of the institution to his widow Jane. She was offended at Ross's break with Republican orthodoxy and demanded that he be fired. The university president managed to secure a delay and a sabbatical for Ross to provide a cooling off period.

On his return in 1900, however, Ross extended his public persona to include a condemnation of Chinese immigration which mixed labor issues with issues of race. Jane Lothrop Stanford was outraged, not because of Ross's racism but because the Stanford fortune had been built on Chinese labor. Now he was out of a job. Professional economists and some of the future founders of the AAUP came to Ross's defense, despite the fact that while the 1896 comments were partly within his area of expertise, at least insofar as an economist was qualified to comment on the gold standard, the 1900 remarks were clearly not, since they went beyond commenting on Chinese labor to include a plea for Anglo-Saxon racial purity. Of course the 1896 statements included not only economic analysis but also a political endorsement. Finally, one would like to think that at least some of Ross's defenders found his racism objectionable, but that they defended his right to speak nonetheless.

And so it has gone for a hundred years. From then until now there have been numerous recommendations that faculty should confine public statements to their area of disciplinary authority, but few have suggested dismissal should follow for those who venture out of their fields. In the meantime, once colleges and universities began to sign on to the AAUP's 1940 statement on academic freedom and tenure, academic freedom could acquire some legal force and precedent as well. In recent decades academic freedom has also, as Haskell points out, become entangled with First Amendment guarantees of free speech. In 1967 Justice William Brennan spoke for the majority in Keyishian v. Board of Regents when he wrote that academic freedom "is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom."[iii]

The combined effects of precedent, contractual commitment to the AAUP statement, and First Amendment guarantees would seem decisively to protect faculty speech in a uniquely comprehensive way. Certainly faculty cannot be effective citizens if they can be fired for participation in the political process or for criticism of university policy. Yet First Amendment protections alone do not protect employees who dissent from corporate policy. It is the complex relationship between the several forms of protection for faculty speech that shape the full meaning of academic freedom.

Michael Bérubé has recently argued in an essay in Academic Questions that academic freedom applies only to areas of a faculty member's "expertise," but that seems at once incorrect on the legal and historical grounds outlined above and misguided as a matter of policy. It raises the possibility of termination for political speech, which seriously undercuts the role faculty can play in a democracy. What's more, "expertise" is no more secure a category than disciplinary identification. Faculty members in the course of a career regularly take up new interests and sometimes abandon old ones. In today's climate of increasingly permeable disciplinary boundaries, these interests may bear little relationship to the faculty member's official discipline.

Bérubé's own work provides an excellent example of such cross-disciplinary permeability. When he began to write about human genetics and public policy for disabled persons, he was no longer working in literary studies, his primary field. He had no professionally certified expertise in genetics or public policy, nor did publishing in nonacademic venues like Harper's or with publishers like Pantheon confer academic credentials. Being reviewed in academic journals might partially confer them retroactively, but that is hardly a timely or reliable arrangement. If the awarding of the Ph.D marks disciplinary or subdisciplinary certification, no such decisive temporal event credentials scholars who branch out into new areas. Thus an admission that "expertise" changes and expands over time will not begin to cover the gradual and unpredictable intellectual life of a contemporary academic.

Few academics, for that matter, are credentialed experts in higher education, but they have a vested interest in commenting on higher education policy, not only within the university but also in the public arena. I have published several books on the Spanish Civil War and several books on higher education policy, two research interests that I acquired fifteen years after receiving my Ph.D. Although the publications effectively grant me recognized expertise, I would argue I possessed some earlier on the basis of my reading and research. Yet no one stopped by my office to test me on either subject. There is thus no way to adjudicate and certify expertise. Limiting academic freedom to areas of either disciplinary or extradisciplinary expertise is unworkable and counterproductive.

These examples also demonstrate some of the reasons why academic freedom must be possessed not only by institutions but also by individuals. During the McCarthy period, some who sought to fire left-wing faculty argued that academic freedom applied only to the discipline's collective right to pursue its ongoing research. But that is an empty safeguard if individuals are continually at risk. The very health of the discipline, so some conservatives argued, required purging "subversive" faculty. The result, of course, would be cautious or cowardly disciplines and intellectually tepid research.

This argument has now resurfaced in arguments put forward by the National Association of Scholars, many of whose members, as we point out in the separate entry on the NAS, argue that higher education must be purged of intellectually suspect faculty. The NAS has lost faith in the ability of the traditional disciplines to police themselves, because they have become intellectually corrupt, or so they claim. Not surprisingly, the NAS joins another of tenure's critics in taking this line. In "The Future of Tenure" Harvard Professor of Higher Education Richard Chait argues that "with respect to matters of `political correctness,' many trustees, legislators, and citizens believe academic freedom actually enables faculty to offer unsubstantiated conclusions and pernicious perspectives with utter impunity." "Were it not for academic freedom," Chait continues, "professors would have to be more intellectually rigorous and more intellectually responsible" (3). We would like to think few academics would welcome legislators and citizens deciding what counted as intellectual responsibility and promptly beheading any professor deemed to have failed its demands.

In the fall 1997 issue of the NAS journal Academic Questions, James Tuttleton rails against "the politically correct imperatives of multiculturalism, feminism, gay studies, black studies, and so on," while Barry Smith simply collapses them all into creeping "tommy-rot" in higher education. Things are getting so bad, he bellows, "that entire disciplines might become in this fashion shorn from all external controls, their members habituating each successive generation of new students to ever wilder forms of tommy-rot . . . The departments of Tommy-rot Studies in the affected universities would then be in the position of evaluating each other's work, awarding prizes and honors to each other's members." Inundated with students of tommy-rot, staffed with professors of tommy-rot, the university will be "filled to the brim with tommy-rot."

Elsewhere in the issue NAS members step forward to wail that they have but the power of reason to fight the forces of tommy-rot. Yes indeed, reason and a grant of million dollars a year from the Olin Foundation. It's a bit like hearing reason extolled on an Alzheimer's ward. Well, we too are admirers of reason, even passionately deployed reason, but this isn't it. Apparently this sort of jeremiad makes the NAS feel good, but one too many stiff drinks of this sort and your brain doesn't function very well any more. One may only pray that Smith is not the designated driver for the Academic Questions editorial board.

It may be that the only place "Tommy-rot" really exists is in Toontown State University, the cartoon institution of higher education NAS members have established rhetorically so they can bewail its excesses, though Dinesh D'Souza and Charles Sykes believe they have found it at Dartmouth, Duke, and Michigan. Meanwhile, the NAS steadily attacks the national organization that seeks to protect academic freedom, the AAUP. As Thomas Haskell points out, whatever you think of feminism or multiculturalism, it is difficult to see how they fall outside the protections of academic freedom. The NAS effort to refashion academic freedom as a weapon to use against people they disagree with is clearly really an effort to do away with academic freedom, not reform it.

Much the same is true of the effort to decouple academic freedom from tenure while explicitly eliminating tenure itself. Yearly or term contracts with very narrow and vulnerable definitions of academic freedom are one certainty. The Pew Charitable Trust has recently given Richard Chait a grant of over a million dollars to develop alternatives to tenure, long one of Chait's interests. "One size no longer fits all," he cheerfully announces in a Harvard Magazine article about the granting of tenure; "the byword of the next century should be `choice' for individuals and institutions." In what is a remarkably disingenuous scenario he suggests that "faculty so inclined should be able to forego tenure in return for higher salaries, more frequent sabbaticals, more desirable workloads, or some other valued trade-off." But of course exactly the reverse is the case. We will forego tenure in exchange for lower salaries, no sabbaticals, and heavier workloads.

Most prospective faculty members will have less, not more, "choice" in Chait's brave new world. But "choice" is not the only slogan he cynically adopts; elimination of tenure and academic freedom, he suggests, will also help promote "diversity" in work arrangements. Meanwhile, other foundations linked to corporations, including the Mellon Foundation, are also mounting or supporting assaults on tenure. Some have suggested we measure the strength or weakness of current tenure policy by the level of public trust it elicits! Chait, on the other hand, has urged we decouple tenure from academic freedom and devise contractual guarantees for the latter. The proposals so far have been chilling at best.

The American Association for Higher Education has been a leader in seeking ways to restrict the intellectual freedom and independence of the professoriate. As part of their "New Pathways: Faculty Careers and Employment in the 21st Century" project, they have distributed Chait's work and that of others in a series of occasional papers that should be required reading for everyone interested in the future we face. In a 1997 AAHE working paper, J. Peter Byrne's Academic Freedom Without Tenure, prospective contractual guarantees of and limitations to academic freedom are expressed this way (the emphasis is ours):

Faculty members have the right to teach without the imposition or threat of institutional penalty for the political, religious, or ideological tendencies of their work, subject to their duties to satisfy reasonable educational objectives and to respect the dignity of their students.

Faculty members may exercise the rights of citizens to speak on matters of public concern and to organize with others for political ends without the imposition or threat of institutional penalty, subject to their academic duty to clarify the distinction between advocacy and scholarship.

Faculty members have the right to express views on educational policies and institutional priorities of their schools without the imposition or threat of institutional penalty, subject to duties to respect colleagues and to protect the school from external misunderstandings.

It is the last requirement——to protect the school from external misunderstandings——that would have particularly amusing consequences in the corporate university. Imagine what caution these "guarantees" of academic freedom would instill in a faculty none of whom had tenure, but any and all of whom could be fired summarily. Moreover, once dismissed, the burden would be on faculty to file suit and seek to overturn an improper firing. In the present system the burden of proof in dismissing tenured faculty is on the institution, which must supply that proof in lengthy proceedings.

Imagine trying to defend your "reasonable educational objectives" in a court committed to upholding the institution's right to be protected from "external misunderstandings." Astonishingly, Byrne's proposal underwrites dismissal for any disagreement that produces public controversy, even for debates about institutional policies and goals. And his demand that we "respect colleagues" would obviously justify dismissal for a sharp disagreement with an administrator; of course anything as aggressive as a campaign to oust a dean or a president would warrant immediate removal of a faculty member. Chait promises a revised set of contractual guarantees for academic "freedom" soon, but we do not anticipate deriving much comfort from them.

Such assaults on academic freedom combine old arguments and new ones. They also grow out of new cultural and technological developments. Many universities automatically save all copies of faculty electronic mail, and administrators sometimes consider it their right to read it all in search of evidence of wrongdoing, purportedly inappropriate personal communication, or unwanted political activity. If academic freedom is the major principle underpinning higher education's whole enterprise, it is also surprisingly fragile.

In summary, then, how is academic freedom being threatened today? Here are a number of the major ways; some of them are discussed in this entry, others elsewhere in the book:

1) By the ongoing shift from full-time tenure track to part-time faculty.

2) By attempts to decouple academic freedom from tenure.

3) By attempts to redefine and restrict academic freedom conceptually.

4) By politically-motivated attacks on how faculty members use their academic freedom.

5) By efforts to limit and narrow academic freedom contractually and legally.

6) By the resurgence of restrictions on academic freedom at religious institutions.

7) By surveillance of faculty communication by electronic mail.

8) By the corporatization of institutions of higher education.

9) By efforts to enact speech codes on campus that restrict or punish speech deemed unacceptable.

10) By efforts to police or criminalize consensual personal relationships on campus.

11) By occasional political surveillance of classrooms.

12) By attacks on the major national organization that defines academic freedom and investigates abuses of it, the American Association of University Professors.

The combined effect of all these forces does a good deal more than threaten the privileges of tenured faculty; it puts at risk the very core educational and cultural missions of the university. For the academic freedom of the tenured faculty anchors everything else the university does. It spreads outward to protect the free speech of students and the development of the disciplines. It underwrites the difference education can make in training the young and evaluating social policy. It preserves the possibility of a reflective historical memory and of a critical difference from contemporary opinion. Academic freedom is the university as we know it. Anything we put in its place would have to go by another name.






[i]. See "Academic Freedom and Tenure: Brigham Young University," Academe (September-October, 1997), 52-68.

[ii]. See James C. Mohr (1970), Mary O. Furner (1975), and Thomas L. Haskell (1996).

[iii]. See William W. Van Alstyne (1990).